In 1990, Congress passed the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), meant to facilitate the return of Native American remains, funerary objects, sacred objects, and objects of cultural patrimony from federally funded museums and Federal agencies to the tribes they were stolen from.

Now, just over thirty years later, an investigation by ProPublica found that “half the remains of more than 210,000 Native Americans have yet to be returned” across the country. In Grand County, data from the national NAGPRA database shows only 11% of Native American remains taken from the area have gone through the NAGPRA process and been made available for return. 

Why do institutions have yet to return who and what were stolen? 

The issues stem from a lack of funding—since 1994, Congress has allocated funds for repatriation and consultation/documentation grants, but the grant amounts are far from enough. In 2022, Congress awarded just over $2 million total to 20 museums and 10 tribes across the country. That’s the only federal money available to institutions (for the cost of creating an inventory and catalog of their collections), and tribes (for the burden of claiming objects and reburying individuals). The grants are highly competitive; grants are typically only awarded to institutions and tribes that have hired professional grant writers. 

A local Native NAGPRA consultant said in a discussion with the Moab Sun News that it feels distinctly unfair that Native Americans must shoulder the responsibility to reclaim and rebury the remains of individuals who should’ve never been taken in the first place, and that there is never fair compensation for doing so. 

Another issue is a lack of data upkeep. The Utah State University Museum of Anthropology, for example, has been documenting an inventory of its Keller Collection for two years, but national data says the museum has no items inventoried; the database will only show that inventory process once it’s completed. The lack of data upkeep means there’s a lack of enforcement: the U.S. Department of the Interior, which oversees the database, funds one full-time staff position dedicated to investigating institutions that lack compliance with the law. When institutions are found to have violated the law, they face a fine, but since 1990, ProPublica reported, the Department of the Interior has collected only $59,111.34 in fines from just 20 institutions. 

According to the data, the remains of 78 individuals taken from Grand County have yet to be made available for return. They are in the possession of the Museum of Western Colorado (52), the Department of the Interior (Bureau of Land Management, Utah State Office) (15), the Field Museum in Chicago (6, although according to the Field Museum’s own NAGPRA database, 0), and the Natural History Museum of Utah (5). 

Since NAGPRA passed, the remains of ten individuals have been made available for return to 22 tribes, from the Denver Museum of Nature and Science (5), the University of Colorado Museum (2), the Department of the Interior (2), and the Utah State University Eastern Prehistoric Museum (1). 

“If you don’t have adequate funding, and other projects are being prioritized by the museum’s executive(s), then backlogged, NAGPRA-relevant collections simply aren’t addressed,” said Tara Beresh, the curatorial and collections manager at the Moab Museum. “It’s really important, but not everybody makes it a priority, or has the experience to even recognize these items for what they are or know where to begin.”

Inside NAGPRA 

When the Act was passed in 1990, the expectation was that all federally funded agencies and museums would compile an inventory of human remains and associated funerary objects in their collections, noting “to the fullest extent possible based on information possessed by the museum or Federal agency … the geographical and cultural affiliation of each item.” 

In this process, institutions would identify which objects fall under NAGPRA. Then, the law requires they initiate consultation with Native tribal consultants to figure out what the object is and where it belongs. The institutions and tribes involved would then have to consult with whoever has control of the object—typically, museums have possession of objects, but in Utah, land rights laws determine that the control lies with whoever owns the land where the item was taken; often this is land managers like the Bureau of Land Management. 

From there, everyone involved would agree to either a “right of possession” or the tribe could make a repatriation claim. The Moab Museum, for example, has the right of possession of the load basket in its collection, which is technically owned by the BLM; though the basket does not fall under NAGPRA protections, the museum still went through the consultation process for it to create culturally appropriate signage. 

If a repatriation claim is made, it would initiate the transfer of the object from the institution to the tribe, if the claim was legally backed up by a “preponderance of evidence, based on geographical, kinship, biological, archaeological, anthropological, linguistic, folklore, oral tradition, historical evidence, or other expert opinion” that proves the tribe is “culturally affiliated” with the object. Once an object is ready to be transferred, the institution must give public notice. After that, the data trail ends, to better protect the places where the objects end up. 

So much can go wrong in that process, a local Native NAGPRA consultant said. A major issue is that institutions can claim an object or remains of a person as “culturally unidentifiable,” allowing the institutions to remain in possession. In an attempt to avoid “culturally unidentifiable” objects being stuck in limbo, the Department of the Interior in 2010 ruled that institutions no longer had to establish a cultural affiliation between objects and present-day tribes—rather, institutions could begin repatriation based only on the geographic location where an object was found. 

According to the law, institutions can also be exempt from repatriating objects that are “indispensable to the completion of a specific scientific study,” or in “circumstances where there are multiple requests for repatriation … and the museum or Federal agency cannot determine by a preponderance of the evidence which requesting party is the most appropriate claimant.” 

While the burden of reclaiming sacred objects or ancestral remains lies with Native tribes, the consultant said, the decision powers lie only with institutions. 

A recent proposed ruling to the Act, made in October of 2022, is trying to expedite the NAGPRA process by putting clear timelines into place. In the new ruling, museums would have two years to compile an itemized list of human remains and associated funerary objects in a new collection, initiate consultation, and consult with requesting parties; then, if a tribe made a repatriation request, museums would have 30 days to respond, and 90 after that to repatriate. That timeline is completely unrealistic, the NAGPRA consultant said, especially—as always—with the lack of funding. 

Repatriation in Utah and Grand County 

According to the NAGPRA database, seven institutions in Utah reported possessing Native American remains taken from across the country. Only one, the Southern Utah University Archaeological Repository, has made none of the remains in its possession—63—available for return. The director of the repository, Barbara Frank, said in a comment to the Moab Sun News that “the institutions which hold NAGPRA related collections do not conduct the actual repatriation process,” which is only partially true; she said the repatriation process now lies with the land managers who have control of the Native remains in SUU’s possession, though according to the Act, institutions have a responsibility to see repatriation through. 

On the other hand, USU has made the most Native remains and objects in its collection available for repatriation out of all seven Utah institutions. It made available for return 84% of the remains that were in its possession—16 of 19 total—in 2011, along with all 73 associated funerary objects. The remains had been taken from Carbon, Emery, Grand, and San Juan counties; the three still in the museum’s possession are marked as “not culturally affiliated” according to the national NAGPRA database. 

“It’s up to us as museum professionals to prioritize the work,” said Molly Cannon, an assistant professor at USU and the director and curator of the USU Museum of Anthropology. The 2011 repatriation was from the USU Eastern Prehistoric Museum; the Museum of Anthropology just recently, in 2020, received grant awards to complete an inventory of its Keller Collection—a process that is nearly finished. 

“It took about two years,” Cannon said, “and we have about five people working on it.” Students were also involved in the documentation process, Cannon said. 

Once the inventory is completed, the museum will move on to the next step: consultation.

“In some cases, we have close working relationships with tribal representatives,” Cannon said. “In other cases, like with this particular collection, we will be starting to build those relationships. This collection comes from a part of Utah where our museum hasn’t worked with the tribes from the region very much—so it’ll be like any relationship. It’ll take some time to build it, and we’ll work together to do this work.” 

Neither of the two museums in Moab—the Moab Museum and the Moab Museum of Film and Western Heritage—reported having Native remains or funerary objects in their possession. 

In May, the film and western heritage museum submitted a formal summary to the national NAGPRA database, meaning it identified items in its collection that were subject to NAGPRA and were deemed culturally affiliated with—and potentially available for repatriation from—eight tribes. 

The Moab Museum completes consultation with tribal representatives for every object it puts on display, even objects not specifically protected by NAGPRA. 

“This is a pivotal point in history. [The Moab Museum] made the decision to prioritize this consultation process because we also happened to be remodeling and rebranding,” said Tara Beresh, the Moab Museum’s curatorial and collections manager, adding that the museum also had a Native archaeologist on its Board of Trustees. 

For many rural museums, adopting that policy of consultation might mean they would have to remove most of what’s exhibited, and many don’t have the resources to invest in consultation, she said. But that doesn’t mean the work isn’t important.  

“I’m hoping we’ll be able to inspire gradual change in how often people consult, and how you put things on display and what you write in the information that’s paired with them,” Beresh said. “…We’re doing what we can to make better choices for future generations, and to foster respectful relationships within our diverse communities.”